People are too big and they take up too much space in a vertical farm. You have to leave a minimum of two feet between plant racks to allow a standing worker to maintenance plants and more if they need to work on a lift which is often necessary on very tall racks. The racks can’t be more than four feet wide because a worker can’t work effectively any further in than about two feet from either side. So, at most, only about 50 percent of the space is occupied by plants. The rest is of the space is circulation space for the people working on the plants. All that “wasted” space is being lighted, heated and cooled, humidified or dehumidified and you are paying rent for all that wasted space as well.
Vertical farms operate on small margins. If you could use robots to do most of the plant maintenance, you could redesign the racks, and the spaces that they occupy. This would allow you to actually grow plants in most of the space, increasing profitability of the vertical farms.
The goal of this IPRO project is to analyze the feasibility of using robotic systems for plant maintenance. These maintenance tasks will include planting, watering, fertilizing, pruning, and possibly harvesting plants in the vertical farm. Redesigning the racks and the vertical farming facilities to use robots should increase the floor space available for growing plants and reduce the cost for growing them.
The spring and fall 2018 robotics farming IPRO teams have been developing several approaches to accommodate robots for repetitive tasks in the vertical farm and improve the efficiency of the current labor force. This spring 2019 IPRO project will follow up on these approaches and design robotic systems to make all facets of the vertical farm more efficient. The IPRO team will also continue an economic analysis of how much these robotic facilities would be able to reduce costs for the vertical farm operators over current non-automated systems.